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DFID and the privatisation of health and education by Jessica Hamer, Health Policy Advisor, Oxfam

In recent weeks, two separate reports have been released which critique the trend by DFID to increasingly involve the private sector in development, including the provision of health and education.

The first report by Global Justice Now maps a variety of initiatives supported by DFID to open up health and education markets to private firms – from a £25 million project with Adam Smith International aiming to enrol 50,000 more children in private schools in Kenya, to a £7million partnership with Coca-Cola on girls’ education and training in Nigeria. This latter scheme is part of a broader DFID-Coca-Cola collaboration which openly benefits the company’s sales plans, the report reveals. DFID’s support of HANSHEP – or ‘Harnessing Non State Actors for Better Health for the Poor’ – gets a particular profile too, including through their £35 million contribution to a Public-Private Partnerships advisory facility. DFID’s influence is shown to extend beyond the financial commitments it makes, through its advice to governments as they develop private sector-friendly policies for the delivery of services.

The second report by the UK Government’s aid watchdog, Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), reviews how DFID is working with the private sector to achieve its mandate to tackle poverty around the world. Worryingly it states that ‘DFID should reassess how it appraises, monitors and evaluates its engagements with business to ensure fitness for purpose and a sharper focus on the poor’ and that ‘In some cases… we are not confident that DFID’s support is additional to what businesses would have done anyway’.

For Oxfam, the dangers of the promotion of privatisation of health and education services, especially in relation to the rising tide of global inequality, are clear. Private services benefit the richest first and foremost, leaving people in poverty behind[i]. When health care is sold through the private sector for example, quality care and medicines are often available only to those who can afford it, while poor people may be forced to rely on low-quality or unqualified care like drug hawkers and grocery shops selling medicines[ii].

Indeed ICAI’s report notes that a survey undertaken of a HANSHEP programme operating in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria – the African Health Markets for Equity – found ‘that less than 1% of people using facilities supported by AHME were from the bottom income quintile in Ghana and other participating countries’.

Prioritising the private sector can see public services eroded as scarce financial and human resources are diverted from the public to the private system, through an internal ‘brain drain’ and expensive public-private contracts. Oxfam’s exposé of a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) hospital in Lesotho, found that the hospital was costing at least three times the amount of the old public hospital it was built to replace for example, amounting to 51% of the total health budget for the entire country[iii]. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) – manager of the DFID-supported PPP advisory facility mentioned above – advised on this PPP arrangement, reaping a $720,000 ‘success fee’ for its work[iv].

When richer people opt out of public systems for health care and education, they also have minimal interest in promoting spending on public services or demanding better quality, as well as less incentive to pay taxes. Thus a downward spiral of deteriorating quality can be set in motion[v]. The result is a 3 tiered system of five star services for the richest people, and a mixture of deteriorated public and unqualified private providers for the poorest. Inequality and poverty thrive.

The same tiered system also develops in education, where children of rich families often attend elite private schools and universities, while poor and lower-middle class children may have a choice between poor quality private education or deteriorating public schools. DFID, as well as other donors such as the World Bank, has been heavily promoting for-profit “low-cost private schools” for delivering better learning outcomes. However, the evidence on quality in these schools is weak. They rely on untrained teachers, standardization and scripted lessons to keep costs down.  Moreover, we know that any kind of school fees – as well as other related costs like uniforms and transportation – will block access to schooling for children from the poorest families.  Relying on fee-charging schools to deliver education will mean that too many of the world’s future Einsteins and Beethovens will be lost – shut out from accessing a quality education because of their poverty.

Profit-making companies also have clear interests in pushing for their own increased role in social sectors. In South Africa, private health insurance firms have been accused of lobbying against a new National Health Insurance Scheme that promises to provide essential health care for all.[vi] In the USA alone, the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors spent more than $487m on lobbying in 2013, more than was spent by any other sector[vii].

Debates on the role of public and private actors in health and education are increasingly relevant as the development community prepares for this summer’s Financing for Development (FFD) summit, where mechanisms for financing the new post-2015 development goals will be discussed. A submission led by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) responding to the draft negotiating text for the Summit, pushes the insertion of new language to promote ‘blended finance’ (public and private) and a bigger role for private finance, including ‘using limited public finance to mobilize private’.  In one shocking suggestion, the submission also advocates for the commitment to ‘move away from harmful, unsustainable [private sector investments]’ to be deleted too.

It is critical that any public funds used to leverage private investment, and private finance generally, comply with development effectiveness principles and be subject to robust environmental and social safeguards, be fully transparent and accountable, and be equitable in risk and benefit sharing between governments, donors and private investors. Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) should be considered only where evidence of effectiveness is abundant and where alternative delivery options are not. Sustainable development criteria for PPPs should be adopted and endorsed by the private sector and by governments. Such criteria should also include the PPP design and implementation process being fully owned by the ostensible beneficiaries, full transparency of contracts and terms, and assessment in terms of equitable and affordable access to infrastructure and services. Oxfam, together with other agencies, have developed a series of sustainable development principles to guide how public-backed private finance is used.

DFID should learn from past experiences and revise its support for private sector financing and delivery of these critical services, prioritising instead investments in strong public services that can deliver universal health coverage and education for all.


[i] Basu et al found that the private sector in health care tends to serve higher socio-economic groups for example. Basu et al (2012) ‘Comparative Performance of Private and Public Healthcare Systems in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Systematic Review’, PLoS Medicine, Vol. 9., Issue 6. http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/fetchObject.action?uri=info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001244&representation=PDF

[ii] Oxfam (2009) ‘Blind Optimism. Challenging the myths about private health care in poor countries’, pp.10-12, http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/blind-optimism-challenging-the-myths-about-private-health-care-in-poor-countries-114093

[iii] Oxfam (2014) ‘A Dangerous Diversion. Will the IFC’s flagship health PPP bankrupt Lesotho’s Ministry of Health?’ http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/a-dangerous-diversion-will-the-ifcs-flagship-health-ppp-bankrupt-lesothos-minis-315183

[iv] Ibid.

[v] T. Smeeding (2005) ‘Public Policy, Economic Inequality, and Poverty: The United States in Comparative Perspective’, Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 86 (suppl): 955-83.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Oxfam (2015) ‘Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More’. https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/wealth-having-it-all-and-wanting-more

 

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  1. […] DfID talks about strengthening healthcare systems in the Global South, but then undermines this by quite explicitly investing £35 million in HANSHEP or ‘Harnessing Non State Actors for Better Health for the Poor, a global network of partners that […]

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